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No algebra? That's 'ignorant and outrageous'August 1, 2012 @ 6:22 pm (Updated: 10:10 am - 8/2/12 )
With disdain, a University of Washington professor reacts to the notion that it's no longer necessary to expect the vast majority of K-12 students to study algebra, geometry or calculus.
"That is complete nonsense," says Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the UW. "It comes from a person who really doesn't understand what they're saying."
The suggestion comes from Andrew Hacker, an author and former professor of political science at Queens College in New York City, who wrote a New York Times op-ed piece entitled Is Algebra Necessary?
"One of the myths is that mathematics - algebra, trigonometry, calculus - train your mind," Hacker told the Ross and Burbank show on 97.3 KIRO FM.
"Yes, they train your mind to solve algebra problems," he says, "but there's no evidence that studying algebra or calculus makes you more astute or perceptive when it comes to politics, society or your personal life."
Hacker also claims of ninth graders, 25 percent never finish high school and the reason "teachers tell me again and again, is because of algebra."
"We're not doing a good job teaching math, students aren't doing well, so let's get rid of it. That's ridiculous," says Mass.
Mass passionately describes the subject, involving brackets and unknown variables, the same way you would talk about a favorite class from college or an adored high school teacher.
"Algebra is behind much of what we see around us, from buildings to engineering to roads, it's everywhere. It is one of the intellectual achievements of our species," says Mass. "Not to learn about algebra is no different than not learning about Shakespeare or some other subject we think is important."
Math isn't the problem. The way schools teach it is, according to Mass. He doesn't like the Discovery Math curriculum many school districts in the state, including Seattle, use. It's also referred to as fuzzy math, or every day math.
That approach to math replaces learning basic skills such as addition, multiplication, and division with class discussion, group projects, object manipulation, and heavy use of calculators. The theory behind it is that kids need to "discover" the age-old principles of math in order to master and apply them effectively.
Hacker believes math is "a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves." He says he can't find a compelling reason to require it.
UW math professor Andrew Loveless has compelling reasons.
"We need logical thinkers in our society," says Loveless. "We need people who are not swayed by biased statistics or crazy rhetoric. We need people who can think creatively and abstractly to sort out our tough social and economic problems. After adding, dividing and multiplying numbers, the next most basic level of abstract thinking is algebra."
The argument that "only five percent of workers use math skills involving algebra or higher level math on the job" doesn't sway Loveless.
"Couldn't that be said about any subject? How many people use biology in their job? How many people use history in their job? What about spelling, what about diagramming a sentence, what about chemistry, what about civics, what about economics, what about PE, what about foreign language? It seems to me that the vast majority of subjects in schools are not ultimately used on the job. So by that logic, it seems that we shouldn't be teaching our kids any of this," he says, knowing that's not what we want for our society.
"To have a population that is ignorant of these subjects is outrageous," says Mass. "It is a certain way for the United States to fall back into second or third rate status."
By LINDA THOMAS
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